9 instructional design principles for building an eLearning course

5 min reading time

9 Instructional Design Principles for Building an eLearning Course

In his 1965 book The Conditions of Learning, educational psychologist Robert M. Gagne argued that nine important instructional design principles can provide a framework for developing a powerful learning process. But how might we translate those principles when developing content for a modern-day eLearning environment?

This set of practical examples illustrates how Gagne’s nine instructional design principles can help you to design an outstanding eLearning course today.

Grab attention

The best books and movies start with a strong opening that keeps readers engaged. To keep learners interested in a course, you can similarly apply Gagne’s instructional design principles by starting with a powerful opening. You could begin by using a short video to introduce your topic or tell a story that resonates with learners. The principle could be also be applied by starting a course with a statistic or a fact that provokes curiosity.

The BBC’s Mi Vida Loca does a great job of applying the instructional design principle by using interactive content to help viewers to learn Spanish. Here’s a screenshot that shows the principle in action:

Set objectives Framing objectives in a context that learners understand helps to promote more effective learning. You could set out your objectives by using questions that encourage learners to think about the topic. For example, if you were creating a course about identity theft, you could open your first module with a question like: “What would you do if your identity was stolen?” to personalize the objectives of the module.

BBC’s Finance for Non-Financial Managers is an example of eLearning content with strong objectives. The course also uses a series of challenges and tasks to immerse learners in the content.

Stimulate prior knowledge Another effective technique is to stimulate learners’ pre-existing knowledge and design activities that build on their current skill levels. For example, if you teach salespeople, you could create module content that focuses on customer data loss, a subject they should be familiar with.

But how might you stimulate prior knowledge? One option could be to create a quiz to test the level of skills learners currently possess. Duolingo, a language learning app, and website, successfully stimulates varying levels of prior knowledge by using mini-quizzes adapted for both novices and more proficient language learners.

Present information

Gagne’s instructional design principles also advise you to be creative about how information is presented within a course. Consider the following three ways to apply this principle:

  • Storytelling: Creating a narrative that your audience can relate to enhances learning, especially if the story includes compelling characters. This example, Medieval Swansea: City Witness, blends a thrilling plot with an interactive game to deliver great storytelling that supports effective learning.
  • Gamification: Rewards, challenges, and other gaming elements can help you to motivate and engage learners while presenting information in an interesting way. If you want to use gamification to inform and entertain learners, consider the example of McDonalds: Till Training Game. This eLearning content cleverly uses game-style panel elements, lifelines, and bonuses to present information in a way that engages users.
  • Interactive video: Video content can help to convey abstract ideas to learners and is also useful for setting challenges. Lost IoP, Lifesaver, and Utility Warehouse are three courses that effectively use interactive videos to keep users engaged with information presented.

Guide learners This principle recommends providing support for learners as they grapple with complicated concepts. If a difficult topic requires explanation, use clickable on-screen elements to provide instant guidance. Progress indicators — elements that show how far a learner has advanced through a course — are also useful for providing immediate guidance.

See how Englishtown, an online English course from EF Education First, uses progress indicators at the top of the screen to guide learners through course content.

Elicit performance This instructional design principle suggests that, instead of setting an exam at the end of a course, you can encourage learners to apply the knowledge they have gained throughout. Simulation eLearning is one technique that allows learners to practice skills as they progress through modules.

Train4TradeSkills, a program which allows trainees to practice skills in a virtual reality environment, is a brilliant example of simulation eLearning. You could also apply this principle by using recap questions to check learner knowledge at regular intervals.

Provide feedback

Providing feedback at regular intervals is a great way to break up eLearning content and retain learners’ interest. It’s also useful for ascertaining how well learners are doing before a course is complete.

  • Branching navigation: This technique gives learners control over their outcomes. As learners choose from multiple solutions to given scenarios, different outcomes are presented for the challenges they encounter along the way.
  • Second attempt: This feedback technique gives learners a hint when they answer a question incorrectly, followed by a second chance to respond.
  • Provide the correct answer with feedback: When learners answer a question incorrectly, consider providing them with feedback, followed by the correct answer. This technique can help learners to rectify mistakes as they progress through course content.

Family of Heroes, an animated eLearning module, provides feedback to users after each interactive scenario: Assess Performance Think about using an online or offline assignment to measure the performance of learners. To apply this instructional design principle correctly, you shouldn’t include topics that haven’t been covered in your course.

If you need inspiration for assessing performance, look at this example by Codecademy, a coding course that uses a series of online tests to measure what learners have achieved. In this example, learners complete challenges to test how their coding skills have developed during the eLearning course.

Enhance Retention and Transfer

Recent research suggests that eLearning can help to boost retention rates by as much as 60%. But you should also brainstorm new and innovative ways to keep learners engaged. Cohort forums, where learners can discuss elements of your course with peers, and job aids, checklists that outline key insights from your course, are two effective methods for enhancing retention.

The Institute of Practitioners in Advertising uses a multichannel approach to improve user engagement. Offline activities should also be used to help learners to transfer their skills to the workplace. Work with managers so that learners continue to receive feedback which will support retention on the job.

Final Thoughts

Gagne’s theories indicate that using a variety of instructional events in a course can support multiple types of learning. In an eLearning context, the real-world examples we have considered show how you can adapt Gagne’s instructional design principles to support learning in modern training environments.

This guest post was written by Steve Penfold, Customer Success Director at ElucidatNeed an authoring tool to help apply these instructional design principles in your eLearning courses? Take a look at Elucidat’s authoring platform.

Related posts